Thursday, July 22, 2010

JUSTICE, OBSESSION, RETRIBUTION & POWER: a review of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo"

“THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO” Directed by Niels Arden Opley
Based upon the novel by Stieg Larsson
*** ½ (three and a half stars)

In an odd way, I almost feel that I am reviewing a film that hasn’t even been released while I am actively reviewing this current one.

I say that to you because so much literal and figurative ink has been spilled over the creation a new film version of author Stieg Larsson’s monstrously popular and internationally best selling novel, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which will be helmed by Director David Fincher. As I watched the original Swedish film version, I could not help but think that if there was any American filmmaker that could potentially take on this material and make it work effectively, it would be Fincher. The story seems to travel right up the middle of his own cinematic subjects, bridging the gap between his groundbreaking serial killer tale “Se7en” (1995) and the excellent true crime, journalistic procedural thriller “Zodiac” (2007). Then, I also wondered, as I watched, if creating an American version, which Fincher hopes to film in Sweden, would be remotely necessary as we have this solid, original foreign film that is being seen and embraced by critics and audiences. I had to consistently keep reminding myself to just focus on what was in front of me as the only film I have to review is THIS one. While I have to admit that my initial reaction was one of admiration, it wasn’t emphatic or overwhelming. Yet, as I write and ruminate over what I have seen, I am feeling that Director Neils Arden Opley’s original film version has burrowed even deeper, making for a strong, powerful film that just may be definitive enough to negate Fincher’s as yet un-filmed adaptation.

For those familiar and unfamiliar with the novel, the basic plot of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” revolves around the 40 year disappearance-and possible murder-of a 16 year old girl. Requested to investigate the case, is Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nygard), an idealistic, controversial, infamous and falsely disgraced journalist, wrongly sentenced to soon serve a six-month prison sentence for libel. Yet Blomkvist himself is also being investigated by the enigmatic titular girl with the dragon tattoo, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a reticent 24 year old, goth styled, bisexual, ace computer hacker with an explosively nasty and vengeful temper. Blomkvist and Lisbeth soon join forces on the case which ultimately leads them into a labyrinth of family secrets and even deeper into Sweden’s dark underbelly and historical links to World War II and involvement with Nazis, in particular.

For those of you who are arriving to this story completely uninformed as I was, I urge you to allow the film to lay its groundwork, for you will be rewarded with a film that possesses a powerfully emotional momentum. “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is the definition of a “slow-burner,” a deliberately paced film designed to slowly surround you in a story that is equal parts pulpy thriller and grimly serious exploration of the dichotomy between the powerful, the powerless and how that balance can easily upend itself. I have to admit to being thrown off by the film’s lugubrious rhythms at first, especially during the lengthy sequences in the film’s first third where Blomkvist and Lisbeth’s personal storylines have not yet converged. In retrospect, it was a crucially smart decision as these two seemingly disparate paths, especially Lisbeth’s, ultimately speak to the film’s larger and demonstrably more disturbing themes.

The world presented in “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is a distressingly violent one and I must take this time to warn more sensitive viewers that while the acts of violence on display in the film are not gratuitous or often seen, what is shown is unblinking, raw and extremely difficult, a decision that has led to some level of controversy. Depicting violence in film and how that depiction can quickly descend into tastelessness and even exploitation is a fine line. Completely disregarding the torture porn of the horror film genre, which seems to exist only to present disgusting acts of violence, and usually towards women, the adult dramatic thriller genre tends to contain more artistic credibility which makes the extremely violent acts of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” all the more upsetting. Some critics have questioned if this film is actually trying to have it both ways by rubbing the audience’s face in violent imagery only to be properly avenged ruthlessly by the character of Lisbeth Salander. I must concede that while those critics and viewers do have a point as the sequences of rape, torture and vengeance are grisly. However, I felt it ultimately worked with the larger issues Opley wanted to engage his audience with.

In his film, Opley is asking us to ponder the complete cycle of violence, how those seeds are planted, how it is taught, whom it affects as well as exploring our complicit relationship with violence. Opley is also asking us to think about the core values and concepts of justice itself. If you have uncovered a horrific secret, what is your responsibility to protecting your own safety, even if it comes at the expense of others, including those in danger as well as the ones who love you? Most dramatically, we are asked, through the character of Lisbeth Salander, who is indeed raped twice by a benefactor early in the film and does house a dark, unexplained childhood, how the seeds of violence grow within the original victims and furthermore, how a victim now views the world, as well as concepts of retribution and revenge. “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is a treatise on the obsessions that drive and define us, whether righteously or not, and it makes for compelling and exuberantly adult viewing, rife with a strong racial and sexual political agenda.

The performances of Michael Nygard and Noomi Rapace anchor the film beautifully as they both fully present the respective histories of their characters with skilled, understated and almost clinically nuanced work. Rapace, in particular, gives a challenging performance as Lisbeth, a woman a few words, with walls of self-protection firmly in place and yet she has to somehow show a myriad of emotional levels concerning control, dominance, protection, vulnerability, rage and possibly, love. Her methodical thinking in times of delivering ferocious punishment is almost supernatural in its completeness. Lisbeth Salander is a damaged soul, clawing onto life and Rapace delivers a fascinating and harrowing portrayal as she completely embodied this character. Rapace often reminded me fondly of Anne Parillaud of Director Luc Besson’s “La Femme Nikita” (1990) and Franka Potente of Director Tom Tykwer’s brilliant “Run Lola Run” (1998), two more cinematic anti-heroines not typically seen in American cinema.

Now, as I return to the ides of this “The Dragon With The Dragon Tattoo” being remade for American audiences just at the point American audiences are connecting with it, and Nygard and Rapace in particular, I am conflicted with any enthusiasm I may have for this project. It certainly will gives David Fincher a most difficult cinematic mountain to climb despite his considerable talent and my allegiance to him as a fan of his work. Yes, as I watched this original version, I often thought of someone like Liam Neeson in Nygard’s role, yet I could not think of any potential actress, other than a complete unknown who could even attempt to bring Lisbeth to life—especially when we have Noomi Raopace.

It made me think again about the precarious state American cinema has currently found itself with dwindling creativity and newfound and almost abusive interests in sequels, remakes and re-boots and re-imaginings. I worry that with the bigger budget and bigger celebrities at play, we will be left with a dumbed down version of a difficult story. Again, I have faith that Fincher will work at his best as his track record, which features no less than "The Game" (1997), "Fight Club" (1999), "Panic Room" (2002) and "The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button" (2008), remains at a high point. But, aren't there just times when things should just be left alone? To allow the original work to find the audience it intends to find and stand on its own feet? In the case of Larsson's book series, all three Swedish films have been made and the second installment, "The Girl Who Played With Fire," is being released slowly around the country as I write, a feat that seems to make the idea of these remakes a moot one.

I must inform you that I am not against remakes of foreign films as a rule. For example, Writer/Director Cameron Crowe's polarizing "Vanilla Sky" (2001), itself a remake of Writer/Director Alejandro Amenabar's ghostly "Abre Los Ojos" (1997), was a film that honored, complimented and even improved upon the original work to me and it remains one of my favorite films from the previous decade. That said, I could not even begin to imagine anyone touching works like Director Alfonso Cuaron's "Y Tu Mama Tambien" (2001) or escpecially Director Jean-Jacques Beineix's extraordinary "Diva" (1981) and the less said about Hollywood's unwise and stupid early 1980's remake of Jean Luc Godard's iconic "Breathless" (1960) the better.

The time for American audiences to expand their collective cinematic minds is long overdue and I cannot help but to wonder if Hollywood and David Fincher just shouldn't even bother with the remake. To be fair to all parties involved, I will certainly save any official judgement until December 2011, when this new version has already been scheduled for release.

Yet when we have already have a film of such high quality, can't that just be enough?

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